Digest>Archives> August 2002

Mysterious Disappearance

By Julie Ostuno


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It was an ordinary Monday afternoon, August 21, 1956. Head keeper Eugene Gillan, and his two assistant keepers Harry Staniforth and Seamus Rohu, chatted and laughed over steaming mugs of hardy Irish tea. Glancing out of the window of the cramped quarters they called home for eight weeks at a time, they became increasingly aware of a shift in the wind. Gut feelings play a major part in a lighthouse keeper’s life, and the three bellies warned of a storm. Uneasily and silently, they rose from their places by the fire and began the preparations they knew by heart. Seamus, glancing at his watch, told the others he’d be right back and hurried outdoors, tugging on his heavy jacket as he went.

Wind immediately bit at his already red cheeks, and whipped through his untidy, red hair. Squinting, he stood motionless, perched precariously on the thick, white wall jutting from the front of the building, facing toward home.

Elizabeth, Lilly to her family, stood on the highest hill on Valentia Island. The same wind that had just bitten her husband’s cheeks, kissed hers with the same unbroken force as it sailed from the unfriendly rock to careen over the fields like a runaway train. Mechanically, she tucked her jet-black, wavy hair under her shapeless bonnet and fished the small mirror from the pocket in her heavy woolen shawl. Carefully, she raised it up to catch the sun high above her head. Twisting it gently, she manipulated the bright, yet cool rays, to flash a signal shared only with Seamus. She waited anxiously, and then released the breath she’d been holding as she recognized his sparkling reply. She blew him a kiss he never saw, and then collecting the children from a neighbor’s house, returned to their humble cottage.

The Great Rock” is Skellig Michael, (Skellig/sceilg means rock in Gaelic). It is an immense, ominous rock with sharp, jutting peaks towering 200 meters above sea level. Located eight miles off the Kerry coast in Southern Ireland, it is the larger of two rocks, the smaller being home to thousands of Gannets, (a sea bird indigenous to the area), and nothing more. This light was first lit in 1826 and there were originally two lighthouses on the rock, upper and lower. The upper light was discontinued in May 1870 when another lighthouse was built on a nearby outcropping. The lower lighthouse, which Seamus Rohu called his second home for three years, was demolished and re-built in 1967. A new lamp went into operation from the white tower on October 2001 and has a range of 19 nautical miles.

Seamus, a warm-hearted boy and always full of good humor, began his career at the tender age of 18. His uncle and two brothers were also keepers of light. Alfred, his uncle, was stationed in Northern Ireland, brother Gerard was stationed on the Maidens Rock also located off the northern coast of Ireland, and his brother Edward’s location is unknown. Previous to moving to Valentia Island, Seamus was stationed at Loophead on the West coast of Ireland. This is a land station, and he served there as an assistant keeper from June 6, 1951 until April 24, 1953. He was reassigned to the small village of Valentia and duty on Skellig Michael soon after. Seamus and his young family were packed and anxious to move to St. Johns Point, a shore station, as soon as he had returned from duty.

As fate would have it, he was never to return. On Tuesday, August 22, in the midst of the storm that did eventually pound the Skelligs, Seamus was sent down to the landing to store an armful of ropes. The rope house was only a short distance from the main building and when the head keeper realized that an hour and a half had gone by and Seamus had not returned, he began to worry. Both he and Harry ventured out to retrieve him, but no trace of him was to be seen. Using the short wave radio the flag room was equipped with, Mr. Gillan radioed Mizzen Head, another lighthouse station situated along the coast, due east of them. They, in turn, called out the Valentia lifeboat, which arrived at the rock at approximately 7 p.m.

Hoping for the possibility that Seamus had found a foothold at sea level, the nine men on board searched around the entire rock, but with little luck. At dark, they had no choice but to return to dock, no longer able to fight the persistent, crashing waves at the base of the rock. The search was resumed the next morning, assisted by the Valonia, an Irish Lights ship, to no avail. Hearing the news, his brother Edward had traveled from County Down in Northern Ireland, in hopes of retrieving his body, but no trace of Seamus was ever found. Lilly and her two children moved to her mother’s house in Ballycastle, Northern Ireland. Lilly has since gone to her rest with Seamus. The lighthouse keepers’ cottages on Valentia Island are still used as residences, although most are available as vacation rentals. The lighthouse on Skellig Michael is now automated, as are all the lighthouses in Ireland. Many daring visitors still take the adventurous excursion across choppy seas to visit the formidable rock, and it is likely they will hear of Seamus if they visit the Valentia Museum. Seamus was 28 years old when his light was extinguished, and as is custom when a mariner is lost at sea, an empty coffin was buried on the island.

This story appeared in the August 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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